Part 4: Heather Henderson's story

Students have to learn to be themselves

This article submitted by Michael Jacobson on 2/21/01.

Heather Henderson's death due to an eating disorder brings a name to the statistics that can be so easily ignored.

Her death also points a finger at Paynesville. As much as people would like to ignore problems like these and think they only happen elsewhere, her disease started here, triggered by her wanting to look just right for her boyfriend at the prom.

"It can happen anyplace, and it can happen to anyone's daughter," said Heather's dad, Bill Henderson. "Paynesville's no better or worse."

Heather's parents don't blame the words that sent their daughter on her first diet. They blame the culture that made such words common.

"There's such pressures on teens, both girls and guys, about what they should look like," said Kris, Heather's mother. "Kids are so vulnerable to that, and it's happening so early now."

According to the most recent Minnesota Student Survey in 1998, Paynesville's female sixth, ninth, and 12th graders were more likely to consider themselves overweight than the state averages. Nearly half the senior girls in 1998 considered themselves overweight, nearly a third of the ninth grade girls considered themselves overweight, and nearly a quarter of sixth grade girls did. While obesity is a real problem as well (see shaded story on page 3), these numbers seem to indicate that these girls have an unrealistic expectation of what their normal weight should be.

What's more, of the high school girls, some who didn't consider themselves overweight still skipped meals. This implies that some girls who considered themselves to be at the right weight still dieted.

To look at current attitudes among students, the Press recently interviewed a group of seven high school girls, organized by school counselor Jackie Campbell, to talk about body image, why dieting is cool, and what it's like to compete with popular images like teen idol Brittany Spears.

In exchange for their candor on this sensitive subject, the Press agreed to grant these students anonymity. The students are referred to by fictitious names.

A dieting culture
The girls didn't think eating disorders were too common, but admitted that the school atmosphere would only expose the most severe cases. "I think it's not much of a problem," said Debra, a sophomore, "or they hide it really well."

You see, not eating lunch is common, whether the excuse is homework or they don't like the food. "Not just the girls," said Alice, another sophomore, "a lot of guys don't eat either."

"I hate it when I sit down and I'm the only one eating lunch," said Linda, a ninth grader.

"Am I supposed to feel bad because I"m eating food?" asked Alice.

These high school girls said they didn't get concerned about dieting and body image until middle school, but staff is noticing signs earlier now. "I'm worried about second and third graders who are way too preoccupied about what they wear and how they look," said Beth Realdsen, the school nurse.

A second grader recently asked if she was fat.

The girls and staff agree that the young lives get more complicated in middle school, when social status, peer pressure, and appearances gain in importance. And kids feel insecure and yearn to be cool.

"In middle school, they start to feel self-conscious and they start to have lots of doubts about who they

"When you're in fifth grade, it's like whatever. You wear whatever you want," said Olivia, a senior.

But in the sixth grade, they got to watch the older students and soon started to emulate their ways. "You look up to them and say, 'Wow, I want to be cool,' " explained Debra.

Skipping lunch can be normal and dieting fashionable. Dieting at lunch, that is, not for real.

The role of sports
Heather Henderson - a three-sport athlete in high school - was particularly fond of gymnastics, a sport she pursued in college and later coached. But she had mixed feelings toward it, loving its precision and the way it rewarding practice, but hated how the participants were categorized by height and weight and how success most often came to the smallest ones.

"I am filled with ambivalence about the time I spent as a competitor and a coach, and the time I spend, even today, watching the sport," Heather once wrote. "It was wonderful to feel strong as I performed, but this was dulled by the knowledge that many of the spectators at meets were there to "check out the girls in leotards." I loved the camaraderie of an all-girls' sports team, but I hated the fact that we were in competition with each other - to be the smallest."

The group of high school girls also expressed mixed emotions toward certain sports. Danceline, for instance, places emphasis on a slender appearance, leading some to feel uncomfortable. "It's not that they're so big," said Lucy. "It's just they're standing next to someone so small."

Wrestling, with its weight requirements, also emphasizes dieting, much of which is done by binging and purging. "Their whole attitude changes," said Olivia, of wrestlers cutting weight.

Wendy has seen positive effects of weight cutting, aside from the results on the mat. She said some wrestlers concentrate on their school work while dieting, to keep their mind off food, and this leads to improved grades.

"I think it's a hard thing for girls when they date a wrestler," said Alice. The girl can feel ashamed for eating, for weighing more than her boyfriend, and for not dieting when he is.

Competing with Brittany
"I guess I don't compete with her anymore," said Olivia. "I don't care."

While these girls came to high school with a clique of friends and concerns about their body image, eventually they figured out to be themselves. It's not how you look that leads to popularity; it's your personality, said Wendy, a senior.

"As long as I'm happy and healthy looking the way I do, it's no big deal," said Olivia. "It's dumb," she added on trying to look like Spears, the teenage pop star famous for her bare midriff. "Why would (you) compete with a pop star?"

Just because that's the message hammered at you in teen magazines and shown on television. Advice in popular teen magazines includes tips on dieting, dating, and wearing the right clothes. Female nudity is common in movies, the girls noted, while male nudity is rare.

The only fat females are supposed to have is their breasts, said Anna, a junior.

Some girls dress more and more like Brittany Spears, even to school. "Stuff is definitely a lot tighter, a lot more form fitting," said Olivia. And other people, of both sexes, notice. "If you don't have the body type, you'd better wear a sweatshirt and flannel pants all year," she added.

"And our school is pretty casual," said Alice about student attire. "Think about in the cities."

Alice has noticed that clothes are designed for skinny people. The small size on the rack looks really cute, but the one that fits you leaves something to be desired. Who hasn't tried to fit into the next smallest pant size?

What should you do when you hear a comment that someone has "rhinoceros legs," Alice wants to know. Are they kidding or do they really think that?

And what does it tell us when that is a culturally-accepted comment? "I think it's something society trains you for," said Alice. "Society has labeled skinny people as the most beautiful and successful," she said.

The recognition of how the culture mistakenly rewards appearances is one of things for which Heather Henderson battled during her life. Her parents are continuing these efforts in her name now, hoping to raise awareness, improve insurance coverage and treatment, and get all people, like these high school girls, to be critics of the media and the culture. and to be willing to step forward and challenge it.

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